On Joining a Movement

Yesterday, I joined a movement. I’ve never been big on “joining” or “movements” which has always been a bit of a sore point on my conscience. I would like to have joined the recent women’s march in DC, where many women friends, sporting pink pussyhats, moved the world and were moved by the meaning and power of a shared mission. When I was recently in Barcelona and the entire city seemed to be marching to demonstrate their commitment to welcome refugees, I was moved by the masses of people marching together, chanting and waving banners for a good cause.

So, I started with something that moved me, creatively and spiritually.

Yesterday, I was honored to have an essay published in Hevria (the litmag), or on Hevria (the website), or with Hevria (the creative movement), an online community which isn’t just a magazine nor just literary, as you can see for yourself, but rather  a unique place of creativity that oozes with a positive and spiritual outlook on life as a creative process, as a force that can bring change.

This I love.

Hevria explains that its name is a combination of the words “Hevreh” and “Bria” in Hebrew, which mean “group of friends” and “creation.”

What better place to be part of something bigger than oneself. A place to begin my involvement in movements.

Elad Nehorai, the creator of Hevria, explains: “We are a group devoted to spreading the idea of positive creation in a spiritual context. We want to make this world beautiful. And we want you to join us.” And so, I did. The experience of a glorious sunset in Tel Aviv and the photo of it that you see below, were part of the beautiful thing in this world that I wanted to write about.

But that was only a small part of the story. There was a human interaction moment that really made it moving, not the sunset by itself.

Since Hevria only accept pieces written expressly with them and their mission in mind, I was waiting for the right moment when I would have an experience or an idea (usually the idea follows automatically a few minutes or hours or days after an experience. This is a way for me to understand what just happened; I metabolize life through writing it and I “unwrap” complex often emotional situations by writing about them.) Writing is my oxygen, what makes me breathe easier in this world.

Always have been, always will be.

What happened to me on the Tel Aviv boardwalk that late afternoon-early evening  was not easy. I was haunted by the moment and how it left me. How I left it. But I knew the moment was bigger than me, and that it carried with it the raw ingredients for some real soul-food-home-cookin’.

Nehorai continues: “Hevria’s mission is to become the go-to community for Jewish and spiritual people who are ‘creators.’” Although I get the meaning of the term “go-to,” I looked it up for a fuller and more evocative essence: “Go-to: denoting a person or thing that may be relied on or is regularly sought out in a particular situation.”

Hevria can be relied on as a beautifully created and creative-spiritual community, available 24/7, when you feel you need some soul-food. And we all need some soul-food from time to time. Yum yum.

Let this be my first step toward joining movements that bring positive change to the world.



A New Week in Jerusalem

Shavua tov,” the old man said as he passed. Wishing me a good, new, week, he reached out his hand and handed me a rosemary twig and smiled with warm, twinkly eyes. I had heard his shuffling feet before I looked up, and noticed him approaching slowly from down the street, as if hugging the closed storefronts, pausing occasionally. His cane helped stabilize him and he took his time. I noticed his clothes were a little shabby, and that he had a bunch of rosemary in his hand. But he didn’t ask for anything, and he didn’t seem to have an agenda. “Shavua tov,” I replied. He walked on.

I was sitting on a bench reading a magazine and Shabbat had just ended. The street was still quiet with few cars driving by and although the day of rest was officially over, there was as if a hiatus of neither here nor there; a few moments of suspended time before the busy bustle of the week was to resume.

To linger and notice this space in time is like an invitation to experience magic.

The magic of a time in-between silence and noise, in-between rest and work, in-between holy and mundane. A time that is fleeting like the setting sun, but infinite in its dreamlike quality of possibilities and promise.

A new week.

Soon the neighborhood would be bustling with people and cafés and restaurants, buses and taxis whizzing by, but for now it was still. I looked up and saw the man stop at the next storefront only a few meters past where I was sitting, and reaching up to its doorway he lifted his hand to touch the mezuzah, the parchment inscribed with a prayer found on the doorposts of Jewish homes and businesses here. He touched it and kissed his hand, this way kissing the words of G-d, and then he shuffled on to the next store’s doorway.

The shops were still closed for Shabbat, so many were dark while some had bright lights in the window. I followed the man with my eyes as he continued his ritual at every doorway, slowly moving down the street, eventually disappearing into the darkness.

Perhaps he is an angel, I thought to myself.

I smelled my fingers that held the twig of rosemary, the strong pine aroma had already left its fresh, minty scent on my fingertips. It made me smile and feel hopeful and invigorated.

I brought the rosemary upstairs to my apartment, turned on the light and opened my computer. And then I thought, it will be a good week, because I was touched by an angel.





Sounds Like Jerusalem

A woman hollering non-stop in Hebrew or in Arabic, I cannot tell from here; cats going at it; dogs barking; the automated announcement on the bus passing by; the muezzin calling fellow Muslims to prayer at 4am;  birds chirping…Perched in a 3rd floor apartment in the German Colony, or Moshava Germanit, here in Jerusalem, I hear the sounds of the city I’ll call home for the next 6 months.

I get to play and wander the city after my workday is over, then the myriad of sounds will be connected to their things.

Down there on the street I roam at dusk, taking in the scenery while the city is still enveloped in the soft, forgiving light of the day’s final moments, when the air is cool and I am free. I see small stray cats of all colors and shades who with their lithe bodies make their way through garbage piles filled with scarps of food; they look nothing like the plump and lazy felines we see in our neighborhoods back home, the ones that go home at night to toys and blankets and their owners’ loving strokes and cooing voices.

I see the snouts of mutt-looking dogs protecting their owners’ gated Jerusalem stone homes where bright pink Bougainvilleas cascade over fences and lemon trees hang heavy with unripe fruits; I’m told Arabs are afraid of dogs.

I see young religious Jewish women pushing baby strollers, and whose heads are fashionably covered in the new hip turban look. In the store I shop next to Arab women, young and old, wearing their hijabs walking closely side by side. Then, I stuff myself into a crowded bus nr.34 A on the way home from an errand in a working class neighborhood. The sights and sounds are a cacophony, my observing stillness interrupted before every stop by the monotonous recorded voice that announces the next one, names of streets flashing in red Hebrew letters on the digital sign above the driver’s head. I understand. I listen. I look around me: Asians, Ethiopians, Russians; beautiful, haggard, covered up, or not. I smell the pungent odor of cigarettes and sweat and urine from the three unkempt bums in the seats next to me; their dark-skinned and hairy arms with tattoos leading down to hands that have been around, draped in wrinkled skin and ending in dirty finger nails that grip what I imagine might be vials of methadone that they discreetly unwrap from brown paper envelopes, comparing them side by side, discussing feverishly, teeth missing, something important.

Hopping off the bus, I approach my new, temporary, home. I smell falafels frying, shawarma grilling, and sweet challahs piled high.

I see beggars of all ages, and regardless of whether I give them a few agurot or shekels, they wish me Shabbat shalom or mumble a blessing. I try to look them in the eyes and not look away from the poverty; but there are so many…

This is like Jerusalem. This IS Jerusalem, “the city of gold.” Gold: malleable and soft; solid under standard conditions. But what is standard here? Gold: produced by a collision of stars. The myriad of people here are like the stars in the universe, each one invaluable to the whole. And they collide, only to make more gold.

Jerusalem of gold. “Yerushalayim shel zahav.” 


Jerusalem of Gold by Jean David

Another Day in Maine

It’s Tuesday morning mid-September, and the air is finally crisp the way it’s supposed to be here, all summer.”Maine, the way life should be”; the slogan you see welcoming you on the Maine Turnpike northbound, and the mantra I now have slapped on the back of my car in the form of a nifty, oval bumpersticker. I giddily took ownership of the idea this past July, and I am now an official MAINIAC. It feels goooood to finally come out of that closet. According to the Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary, the word “maniac” is not very popular: You’ll find it among the bottom 50% of words based on “popularity.” I lived my entire childhood and adolescence not being among the popular ones, so bite me.


noun ma·ni·ac \ˈmā-nē-ˌak\

Simple Definition of maniac

  • : someone who is violent and mentally ill

  • : a person who behaves in a very wild way

  • : a person who is extremely enthusiastic about something

Ok, let’s just throw the first definition to the wind (it’s too simple of a definition to explain it all; a cop-out, if you ask me) but let’s keep the two next ones. Wild. Enthusiastic. Yes, that works.

So, why is this summer different from all other summers? Well, for one, this summer saw many days of temps in the 80s and 90s – IN MAINE! – something I frankly had not signed up for. The Viking that I am, degrees above mid 70s make me feel ferklemt. I’m talking inability to think clearly, sudden onset dyslexia and temper issues. Maybe the first definition can stay, come to think of it. On a particularly balmy afternoon I yelled out to my new neighbors, “Hey, what’s with the heat?? I want a refund!!” They served me a vodka tonic, G-d bless them.

But about Tuesday mornings. Here in my new hometown, a small, quintessential, New England college town, about two hours north of Boston, there is the farmer’s market on the town green, EVERY Tuesday and Friday morning. This delight takes place all of 1.5 half blocks from my new abode; a yellow painted barn from the 1860s, just converted into a pretty fab little apartment. I simply take my well worn canvas shopping bags and mosey on down, nodding and smiling to all, because it’s impossible not to.The local produce, cheeses and baked goods abound, while buying a bouquet of flowers means they last for two weeks. It’s all that fresh.

Here in Maine, we take our time and say things like “Ayuh” (real slow) for “yes,” and if you ask someone how they’re doing, be prepared to listen to a story or two.

Onto my new town library, where a gloriously large and bright “quiet room” awaits, with signs scattered about that read “Just Write!” and Hemingway’s quote, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” is plastered on the walls. My kinda place. I realize I might bleed some here in the years to come, perhaps on the plush, colorful Persian rug underfoot, but it can’t be all fun and games, now, can it?



All I Needed Was a Hood

My last visit to Home Depot – one of many recent runs there during my project of converting an 1865 Maine barn into an apartment – turned into a sweet and odd reminder of my writing life. That writing life that often gets sidelined as soon as I have “more pressing” things to do, like move, get a kid off to college, build a home…But the sales person who helped me navigate the dizzying ventless hood options quickly revealed he was an avid journaler with a penchant for storytelling.

A man in his 50s, he was a far cry from the “Home Depot Guy” one might expect;  his tall and lean figure with thin, delicate gesticulating hands and animated and dainty facial expressions produced an energy loaded with charmingly feminine affect. His lips pursed just so every few seconds and his eyes would widen and roll while his eyebrows rose and fell or frowned to give more expression to his speech. He would lean in or sway back while elaborating about his own ventless hood fan home renovation story, that soon enough included references to his father’s voice chastising him from the grave about not installing it correctly.

He had me at how hearing his dead father’s voice commenting on his activities was such a meaningful part of his experience, or how his dad was still an influential and lively presence, despite having been gone for several years. I know what that feels like.

From talking about his own father’s opinions, expectations and disappointments, the conversation (which was mostly a monologue) quickly turned to his own experience of fatherhood, and how his own grown sons were so hard to reach, both physically and emotionally. So, he said, he journals in order to be able to one day leave them a document where they can, when they are ready, learn more about their dad’s inner life. The painful time leading up to the divorce (I suspected he had decided to come out in mid-life, since he made some indirect references to that effect, and this had caused a domino effect of challenges for both him and his family), the misunderstandings, the things unsaid, the things that can’t be undone…the love. The need to tell ones story.

I finally left Home Depot with an affordable yet sleek, stainless and Italian-designed hood, sure to make my cooking forays more pleasant and less stinky. That felt like a relief. But the part about that early morning Home Depot run that truly felt gratifying, was having spent a few minutes listening to Barry, my fellow storyteller, which in turn inspired me and reminded me of my inner calling, which in turn brought me back to my keyboard. Here. Now.

I live and love my life of “yang” – of movement and action – as much as I love and strive for more “yin” – stillness and meditation. The first is easy for me; it’s in my blood and having the shpilkes is simply part of who I am. That energy is often the catalyst for all the practical “stuff” I am so efficient at getting done. As a kid, I’d run around my Oslo neighborhood and either help people or got into trouble. I didn’t sit much. I didn’t read much. Sitting and writing – or just sitting – is not so obvious for me. But the storyteller in me reminds me to, is constantly tugging and nudging me in that direction, again and again. Sometimes it just takes a little listening to remember.

Home Depot

Moving On

The count down has begun to my moving day. This feels both exhilarating and overwhelming, and even a tad surreal. But I’ve always tried to be the kind of person who looks at change whether willed, natural or unexpected, as a positive and necessary thing. If there is to be life, there has to be change. I can’t say I have lived my life so far avoiding leaps into change and difference: moving from one continent to another, converting from one religion to another, going from single to married to single again; these have all been huge emotional movements above and beyond the more natural but no less grand events such as motherhood, degree-begetting and, alas, “THE change,” (the latter making every day potentially but unpredictably a hot and flashy experience, mid-summer aisde). In less than one week I’m heading north to Maine, but first the journey goes to Israel to write, do research and learn more Hebrew, a dream I’ve had since my early days as a Jewess.

I’m basically an empty nester now, all three sons having graduated from high school and moving on with their life plans, leaving me able to imagine a different dailiness than the one I have lived for the past 28 years in my safe and pretty privileged Connecticut suburb. This is where I moved as a newlywed, raised my children, and experienced an extraordinary Jewish community that I was in many small ways part of building. It’s also where I have lived through the painful process of separation and divorce, and the odd but convenient last few years of living in a condo ten doors down from the large house where I had raised my kids, and where their father still lives with our boys’ step-mom. Both the children and we parents shared the ease of this proximity, since there was no need for the adults to drive the kids to mom or dad’s house, and the kids could just stroll down the street to either home, to fetch a schoolbook or that favorite pair of jeans left behind. The oddity came with remaining so close, too close, to the place and the person I was no longer connected to in that intimate and familiar way; the nooks and crannies of the big, old house, and the movements, habits and sounds of the guy whom I had lived with since I was 19 years old.

But if there is one advantage to being an adjunct professor it is that, professionally, there are no ties, and although the adjunct may be poor as a pauper, she is free as a bird. The other day I was sitting at my kitchen counter, having written out a check for a bill needing to be mailed, and realized that the roll of colorful return address labels I ordered when I first moved into my new condo, over six years ago, is almost empty. While tugging at the now tiny roll nestled inside the clear acrylic dispenser holding the labels, I thought, what a coincidence. Or, good timing! There’s a time to nest, and a time to fly.

I won’t be able to order new address labels yet, since I’m going to live a bit of a vagabond life for a while, but shedding the ties associated with regular suburban living will also mean fewer of those kinds of bills to pay. Away goes the mortgage, the condo fees, the massive property taxes, the utility bills, the JCC membership…Uprooting, even when it doesn’t happen often, is never easy, but it can feel both liberating and destabilizing.

Leaving the place called home, however, has never meant severing the ties to the heart. Although I left Oslo, Norway, 32 years ago this month, my friendships from growing up there remain among my most dear ones. And now, after 28 years in my second hometown, it is not with glee or carefreeness that I up and go. As much as I feel the change that lies ahead is a necessary and a good one for my growth as an individual, a significant piece of my heart will always linger here, among the special relationships and places I have been so lucky to know and love.





On Mother’s Day: My Role Model

I’m about to give up. I pedal away although it feels like I’m about to explode, and my face pounds like a stuffed, broiling tomato; my heart pulses in my fingertips, in my hair follicles. From behind thumping techno music (or is it throw back disco music? I am too otherworldly to tell the difference) the spinning instructor encourages us to envision the hill up ahead, and what’s waiting for us there. On the wall behind her fit, muscular, bouncy body, in the dark, five big, bold words spell out, “What do YOU spin for?”

That day I thought, “I spin for my uncle – who was in hospice – to be comfortable and feel loved.” I envisioned, on the top of the hill, my dad and uncle, embracing, urging me on, celebrating love and togetherness, each holding a cool, summery, gin & tonic. My three boys were there as well, waving Norwegian flags (my imaginary hill was a snow capped mountain in Norway) and then, strangely, so were a diverse crowd of secular and religious Israelis and Palestinians, cheering me up the hill, smiling, jumping up and down, kaffiyehs and prayer shawls flapping, showing me hope and dreams.

But the main reason I don’t give up, that I don’t slump over the handlebars slippery from my sweat, that I don’t yelp “fuck it!” and glide off the stationary bike in resignation and disappointed self loathing, is because of my mom. Through, behind, before and after all the imaginary and encouraging visions I spin up in my head, is the not at all imaginary power of the inspiration of my mother: “Don’t quit, your mamma would never quit!” I think, again, and again, and again. It’s my mantra that keeps me going. And so, I find the last iotas of energy from somewhere deep within me I didn’t even realize existed, and pedal my way up to the top of the hill, to the crest, only to hear myself emit a loud and relieved moan, while sitting down on the hard and uncomfortable bike seat, my butt bones sore, enjoying the minute and half of recovery time. Before the next incline.

Because, as we know, in life, there is always another incline. But there’s one way to get past it, and that’s by tackling it, and in the end, there is always relief.

My mother, a solution-oriented, energetic and positive woman, has a gift of making the best of even the most dire, seemingly unsurmountable situations. She is an emotional survivor. I have my thoughts as to what it has been, especially in her early life, that made her develop this survival mechanism, but these are moments and years she doesn’t speak much of. The war and occupation in her girlhood; the separation and divorce of her parents around the same time; her father’s physical, emotional and financial demise and sudden death, perhaps suicide; her being the one to discover his body…

But maybe more than all the courage and willpower, the optimism and energy, it is the ability, no, the importance, of taking good care of oneself as a woman, as an individual, and as a mother and as a lover, that she has shown me. This means not always being self-sacrificing, this means not always putting ones owns needs last, this means taking the time, making the time, finding the time, to do good not just for others, but also for oneself.

I often wonder, what it might be that I will have bestowed to my three sons, knowingly or unknowingly, and that they may one day summon from the deepest recesses of their consciousness, when they need it? It may be different for men. It may not. In fact, I think my mother has shown me that it shouldn’t be any different for us. For the women and the mothers.

One day, I may have daughters in laws, or granddaughters…I hope they will know my mother, and I will make sure to carry on her motherly legacy to try to be the kind of role model I was blessed to have.

Mother's Day

Mamma Moments: 1970’s

It’s amazing how much you can see from peeking through a keyhole. As a child, I once watched most of Robert Redford and Paul Newman’s The Sting perched on a small stool on the other side of our closed living room door, leaning in with one eye pressed against the tiny decorative brass opening, occasionally bumping my forehead, covered with blond bangs, against the door handle just millimeters above. The small noises coming from me settling in behind the door for my movie night delight, would reveal to my mother – my mamma – that I was not where I was supposed to be on a weeknight at 9pm: in bed and sleeping.

Watching the adult American film like this, with the excitement of perhaps being discovered – knowing I was being disobedient and naughty – was an exhilarating experience, and I never had a clue then that my mother actually knew all along I was there. That she let me sit there and be entrepreneurial and content about my feat; that she would smile to herself. She later told me that when she felt it was really time for me to hit the sack, she’d make some noise and slowly move toward the door so that it would give me time to run back into my room, undiscovered. Then she would leave the door open automatically preventing any further clandestine movie-going by the underaged.

In Norway, when I grew up in the 70s, we had one government run TV channel and Monday night was “adult” movie night. That’s when both classic and contemporary American films would be screened at 9pm, just one film, once a week. These were the days before the DVD machine, gazillion TV channels – even in Norway – and Netflix binge-watching and live streaming. The anticipated Monday night movie was an institution, just as Little House on the Prairie on Sundays or the Muppet Show on Fridays. Cigarette in hand, and perhaps also a drink or a cup of coffee, my mom would close the doors between my bedroom and the kitchen, and also between the kitchen and the living room so as to provide an extra buffer between the music and voices escaping from the screen during Monday night movies. But she told me later that she could hear my breath and the sound of my rigging up the stool on my side of the door, and then my little body fidgeting on the seat. I remember the small tear in the corer of the baby blue vinyl seat cover, and the smell of my mother’s cigarettes. I remember feeling happy. Even if I only had gotten to watch part of the movie – probably a very small part – it still felt like an accomplishment. I recall falling asleep content to the remote and muffled sounds of the action on the TV, with vivid images in my mind.

The ability to let her young daughters find their own way with enough freedom to give a sense of autonomy, has always been one of my mom’s strengths, and it was an empowering way to grow up. I thought I could do everything.






To Be Curious in Books

My boys keep a stack of books in the bathroom next to the toilet, and I think they even read them occasionally. Like, if the battery on their iPhones are dead. Turns out most of these tomes are from my late father’s library, and bear titles like The Collected What If?: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been and Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. 

Open a book up, and you will likely find a palimpseste – a layer – of inscriptions: first the ones I made to my dad – my dad who lived and died in Norway – when I originally gifted him the book in hand on any of my many visits, and then, after he died, my second inscription dedicating it to one of my sons, usually the one who would like the given topic. Each dédicace was written in profound sincerity; my words desperately trying to convey the yearnings seeking to link ideas and a certain mindfulness between him and them, with me suspended somewhere in-between, acting as a conduit of a metaphysical gene pool I imagined no ocean between them could weaken. This was on your grandfather’s mind. Bring it into yours.

When my dad died, my sister and I spend a mere day going through his limited belongings. Clean clothes, save the jeans he had last worn before he left us – now hanging lonely on the chair next to his bed – were neatly folded in a spartan wire drawer system in the hallway of his minuscule apartment. Old newspapers were in the basket by the door, and he had done the dishes in his efficiency kitchen that night, when my sister had shared her last meal with him. While we were cleaning the rental apartment the day I arrived, listening to music and scrubbing and sorting and crying in a rhythm I seem to recall as feeling real, honest, and necessary, she told me he had mostly just sipped a beer to keep her company while she ate. It had been a sweet evening, even though he admitted he didn’t feel great. He had told me so for a while; it was as if he was preparing me each time I called him from my home in the U.S. But he always tried to switch the topic to how I was doing. “And the boys, all is well?””All is well.”

I kneeled on his bedroom floor and scrubbed away the blood stain from where he had fallen, the spot where my sister had found him just a day or two before. It was my last cellular contact with him. I wanted to scrape it and touch it with my fingers. Smell it. But I didn’t. I just kept wetting the floor rag, rapidly rubbing and desperately hoping the now deep dull red, almost brown color, would disappear before my sister came into the room…until it eventually faded away and his DNA dissolved in the murky waters of the utilitarian blue plastic pail beside me.

Most of his things went to the Salvation Army or in the trash, except a few personal belongings which I felt the most attached to, probably a symptom of me having lived away for so long. My youngest son got his jeans and my middle son his hat. I have his bread knife and some precious framed photos of him and my kids I had given him over the years, and I kept the old cigar box we found, full of old love letters from his girlfriend when he was in the army in the 1950s; a treasure trove of sweet beckonings from his first love. I also brought many of his books back to the States; books I had carried one by one over the last twenty years whenever I came to visit, knowing one of the few things that brought him pleasure aside from his two daughters, our kids, and his close friends, was the printed word, a good scotch or a cold beer.

My favorite is an average size book, light in weight for a hardcover, whose book jacket is missing, and whose red spine is loose and cracking in the seams where it joins the once cream colored parchment-like cover, tattered and discolored from my father’s handling it over years. His finger marks seem visible, a slight grayish hue perhaps from the oils in the skin of his fingers; a dark spot in the top right corner that could be coffee, or food, or perhaps spit. Who knows? Now these textured signs of a life spent in the company of a book he enjoyed offer a strange sense of connection between him and us. I imagine the book is discolored from being leafed through late at night or early in the morning, my father lying on his right side in his twin bed, book under the reading light, with a pair of cheap readers pressed against the bridge of his nose leaving a deep, red imprint. Times when its pages provided some comforting, humanizing companionship against insomnia, an impending hangover or the loneliness of the next day.

The Book of General Ignorance is said to challenge “what most of us assume to be verifiable truths in areas like history, literature, science, nature, and more; a witty… compendium of how little we actually know about anything.” And that, in the end, was his message: a sense of wonder about how little we actually know about anything. If my boys should carry on any legacy from their Norwegian grandfather, even if it’s while they’re sittin’ on the can, it should be to keep an open, imaginative mind and remember that everything is relative. And this, he would say, is most easily achieved by keeping a good book within arm’s reach.

My Students Will See Horror

France is home to the largest Jewish and Muslim populations living side by side outside of Israel, with approximately 4-6 million Muslims and a rapidly dwindling 5-600,000 Jews. This spring I am teaching a course called “Jews and Muslims in France” (a light topic…) at a small private college in New England.

As I am preparing the course schedule – what books to read and films to see and in what order – I worry about keeping a balanced syllabus. I hesitate; perhaps it’s not necessary to show the film about the grisly gang kidnapping and murder of 23 year old Jewish Parisian Ilan Halimi in 2006? One NY Times film critic called it full of melodrama. That means things like “sensational,” “exaggerated,” and “appealing to emotions.” Who wants to use that as a teaching tool? Teachers are supposed to be objective and cool-headed.

For a moment after I read the review, I thought, maybe this film is just too much and not really relevant. Too “Jewish,” too victimizing, and too focused on the gang of a sick, twisted and motley crew from the Paris projects known as the Barbarians who committed the heinous crime.

It matters to me that students will read and watch varied stories about how immigration to France by North Africa’s Jews and Muslims since the 1960s has not been a walk in the park for either group. How, sometimes, they have co-existed quite well in various neighborhoods within schools, shops, restaurants and cafes, and other times, it has been tense, complicated and as we know too well, violent. This waxing and waning has been deeply affected by a complex set of catalysts: among them the baggage from the colonial era and of the arduous process of decolonization; by social inequality in France, and of course by events in the Middle East as they radiate out into the world and are adopted as personal battles by disenfranchised Muslim youth as well as by French Jews in their support of Israel as a Jewish homeland.

Preparing to preview the French film 24 Days based on the tragic Halimi affair, I again thought about the voice of the reviewer and how it annoyed me with negative comments about “screaming women and worried looking men” and her questioning about why we don’t learn more about Ilan’s father’s estrangement from the family, as if this is critical information in understanding the profundity of the human drama portrayed: loosing a child. And then there’s this: “Even Ilan’s mother (Zabou Breitman), whose viewpoint we are sharing and who directly addresses the camera, emerges as little more than a tireless advocate for exposing the anti-Semitic motivations of the crime.” Imagine that. Little more, melodrama and screaming women.

Everything that happened to Ilan Halimi happened to him because he was Jewish. He was targeted as a Jew, not as a Frenchman, nor as white, or European. A Jew. Thank goodness for Ruth Halimi’s courage and fortitude to have written the book and taken on the burden of “exposing the anti-Semitic motivations of the crime.” Had the French Police and justice system not delayed and resisted recognizing this evident fact, perhaps Illan might have still been alive.

But then I watched the film, and I made up my mind. Every time a woman screamed (Ilan’s mother, sister or girlfriend) I screamed with them. It felt as though my guts thickened my throat. Yes, indeed the film was a dramatization of a real life event, but if the character who played Ilan’s mother had stood in the Paris streets and screamed her guts out while pulling her hair out and clawing at her face, or been lying in bed in the fetal position whimpering while drugged up on valium, I would think it a more accurate depiction of how a mother could and should have the right to react in a situation like this.

Melodrama is defined as “a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions.”

Can you imagine exaggerating when portraying a mother who knows her son is being tortured for 24 days and then finds out he is killed. Eventually exhuming his body from the Parisian cemetery to bury him in Israel in order for him to rest peacefully, preventing the criminals from spitting on his grave when they are released from jail. Alive and free to be with their families, with their mothers. I can’t imagine how to exaggerate portraying this experience.

Although the Barbarians were a motley crew from diverse backgrounds, the leader, Youssouf Fofana, was a Muslim from the Ivory Coast, who made the more than 600 terrorizing phone calls to the Halimi family during the ordeal, and played Quranic verses into the phone. This is also part of a reality.

So, my students will see the horror of a most despicable anti-Semitic crime. But they will also read stories and see films depicting Jews and Muslims coexisting, co-operating, helping each other and even romantically involved. These are all scenarios part of the complex reality between Jews and Muslims in France since the 1960s, and as an educator I hope to open minds and encourage discussions on this timely and often difficult topic.

Jewish_and_Muslim Mourners